Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Discipline, Be Proactive!

English: Patrick Henry Elementary School stude...
Patrick Henry Elementary School student teacher Isabell Pfeufer listens carefully as students edit their book reports Oct. 2. Pfeufer, who has been blind since birth, completed a three-week practicum with the class in Heidelberg, Germany, in September and October. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Kim Amburgey

What's the saying ... an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? Boy, if we all lived by that belief, I bet many of the frustrations in life we face would lessen!

For example, if we didn't eat fast food for the last four days, our scales wouldn't reflect some new, astronomical number!

If we didn't drive 55 mph in a 35 mph zone, we wouldn't be shelling out $100 for a ticket! If we didn't indulge in an unnecessary shopping spree, our bank account wouldn't be empty! The list could go on and on.

This same idea can be used when it comes to discipline! If we know our students well, then we know what gets them angry, when they tend to be off task the most, when they feel the most frustration, who they butt heads with, what their behavior looks like when they're ready to blow, etc.

If we know these things about our students, we need to use that knowledge to try to prevent discipline issues from occurring, or at least from occurring as frequently.

When our former principal came to our school, we had just ended a year where we had 850 discipline referrals sent to the office! We were an elementary school of around 300 students, grades K-6. Unfortunately, we were to the point that when a student "misbehaved," we wrote them up and sent them to the office for the principal to deal with!

Wow ... lucky them! These students got to sit down at the office, with an audience (whoever walked in or out of the office) and with probably three or four other students who were in trouble and also waiting on the principal. What a party! It was truly, honestly ... ridiculous. I don't know how else to describe it, nor do I like to think I was part of that practice.

When our new principal came, the first thing she asked us was what we wanted to see changed at our school. Resoundingly, we said discipline. Our thinking, however, was that we wanted discipline handled better at the office, versus us making changes to prevent the discipline.

Our principal talked to us about how limited she was when students got to the office in terms of what she could do. She could suspend them. She could expel them. Then, our students could sit at home all day watching cartoons and playing video games. Clearly, those two options weren't the answer, as that is not what's best for students.

That's when the discussion turned to what we could do differently in the classroom. Being proactive was one of the first things we talked about. Having our students for two years, we typically got to know them very well. So, we had to think about we could use our relationships with the students to focus on preventing discipline issues from occurring, versus only thinking about reacting to the discipline.

What a difference it made! We did things such as start community meetings where students talked about behaviors they didn't like. We started mini-tribe meetings, where small groups of students helped to solve problems amongst other students.

We initiated timeouts, where students would spend some time in another classroom to calm down in order to prevent "blowing" or to calm down after "blowing" (versus sitting at the office). Students who typically had anger issues chose a special teacher they could go see if they felt they were getting upset.

When this would happen, the student would give a slip to his classroom teacher, letting her know he needed to go see his partner teacher to calm down. We all agreed that if a student came to us (as their special teacher) we would let him stay in our room until we had a chance to talk to him.

There was even one case on our proactive journey when one particular student had so much difficulty getting along with his peers, our principal finally just said, "Okay, you pick the room where you think you can behave the best!"

Sure enough, he went to the other three classrooms, looked at the kids in the room, pointed at one particular room and said, "That one." He picked the room where he thought he could get along with other students the best. And guess what? He was right.

For this same student, the classroom teacher, principal, and gym teacher even worked on building him a personal space in the classroom where he could go when needed. It was a round table, with a large tablecloth over it that went to the floor, and even a lamp. He would go under the table when he needed that personal space or felt he was getting extremely frustrated. He called this spot his retreatment. It worked like a charm!

When we stop and think about what safety nets, practices, procedures, retreatments, etc. we can put in place to help students avoid discipline issues, it truly can make such a huge difference. Our 850 office discipline referrals went down to MAYBE 10 ... and they haven't gone back up since then!

Being proactive is one way to help alleviate some of the discipline issues in your room, thus bringing a little more peace to both you and your students! It helps to avoid punishments that don't help students grow in their behavior, as well as punishments that actually encourage misbehavior!

Kim Amburgey is an educator in a democratic, multi-age public school, where she and her teaching partner incorporate various teaching strategies to increase the engagement of their students. Several of these strategies extend educator's thinking beyond the traditional classroom practices.

Visit Kim's blog at to learn more about some of these strategies!

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